Saturday, February 17, 2007

Uncle Artemus' Top Five Mix Cuts of the Week: Introductory Installment

This is a new blog segment I've decided to put up after a painful viewing of the Celebration of Mediocrity that is the Grammys.

I have a penchant for making mix playlists from my fairly extensive iTunes library. I mix 'em up and burn cd's to play in the car, at work, in the kitchen, wherever. I've been making music mixes one way or another since I was ten or eleven years old. The first two albums I ever owned were received as Christmas gifts, and I continued to ask for and receive record albums and Sci-Fi books as my standards for Christmas and birthdays until well into my twenties. Those first two were Bachman-Turner Overdrive II and Paul McCartney and Wings - Band on the Run. I remember wanting the McCartney album because I loved the title track; the BTO because that album happened to be playing the first time I ever saw a real naked girl, so of course I absolutely had to own it. Don't ask.

The next one was Queen - A Night at the Opera. Death on Two Legs totally rocked and that's about the time I decided I needed a better way to listen to music. I had three great albums and a bunch of 45's but I didn't like all of the songs on any of LPs. So I asked myself, how could I just listen to the ones I liked without having to plod through the slow, long, boring or otherwise crappy cuts scattered among the gems? A mix tape was the answer.

But that meant using a cassette tape recorder, which to me was a new and outrageously wondrous piece of technology that was light years beyond my meager eleven year old means. The only way to procure such a big ticket item was as a Christmas gift and that was a long shot. In my mind I might as well have been asking for a new car. Portable tape recorders were so unbelievably high tech t
hat I didn't really believe that my parents would ever agree to forgo rent, groceries, gas and electricity to buy me one for Christmas. Eventually, though, the holidays rolled around and after much begging and pleading my parents parted with the twenty bucks or so that the thing actually cost and paid Santa to bring me my very own sound mixing device; in my eyes the absolute, ultimate far out-est thing ever invented for use by those of my meager ilk. In actuality it was a plastic box with a detachable wired mike that my brother and I promptly employed to record our farts and resulting hysterical laughter. Coooool.

But I digress.

I quickly got around to the serious business of recording my favorite songs. I used an old record player with a broken drive belt that my mom had given me. I took it apart, figured out how it worked (not much to it really, a motor and a turntable and a rubber belt between the two) rigged a new belt out of a big rubber band and played my records. Granted the speed was a little off, but it played. And I loved listening to music so much it didn't matter to me if it made Freddie Mercury sound more like Tiny Tim.

I quickly figured out the recording process; queue up the tape, hit record and pause at the same time, park the microphone in front of the non blown speaker, drop the phono needle at the end of the previous cut, wait for for the click and pop filled space between songs, release the pause button and sit very quietly.
Then repeat the process for every song wanted to to go on tape, carefully choosing the order and starting again every time my brothers ran screaming through the room or mom yelled something or a truck ran by on the road outside. "Be quiet I'm recording!" I would whine. The mike didn't just pick up the music, it picked up every sound within two hundred yards. It took days sometimes to record one tape. The coolest technology in the world.

Thus began my history of mixing playlists, many years before iTunes was a little thought bubble in Steve Job's head. As I got older I eventually got a better stereo, and
for a time actually was able to record mixes on Eight Track tape. By the time CD technology came along I had at least fifty or more different mix tapes recorded, and dozens more that were lost or eaten by cheap car stereos or borrowed or given away. I mixed tapes for friends, parties, road trips, road trip parties, anything. My mixes were generally very popular and appreciated as well considered and executed. I always loved hearing someone say at a party, "Cool! where did you get this music?"

For me as a mix tape junkie, iTunes and mp3's are the most awesome thing to happen to mix technology since the internal tape deck and microphone. I have dozens of playlists, quickly assembled and recorded for the car or whatever. What used to take me hours of playing real-time album cuts to record a mix now takes minutes. I absolutely love it.

Why, you may ask, do you record them at all? Why not just leave them as playlists on your iPod? My answer is, because I don't have and iPod! I have iTunes and an amp on my Mac and a good car stereo CD player so I never really saw the need to spend the two-hundred bucks or whatever they cost. I have recently discovered though that there is an adapter to play the iPod through your car stereo. Now I want one but still can't afford it.

All of that brings me finally to the point. My intention is to share each week my favorite five mix cuts of that week. My criteria is my own but I can assure you, if you like music for music's sake, you'll probably like a lot of what I put out here.

My tastes run the gamut of genre's but I tend to steer away from the more predictable main stream styles. I may dip into Country or Hip Hop a little, but the rhythms and chord progressions tend to be too constant and easily anticipated for my taste and the vocals of both have too much to do with cultural accents. I'm not a big fan of urban contemporary' modern R&B either, it all has the same overaffected overstylized vocal sound to me. For mostly nostalgic reasons I love a lot of 70's music. Jazz is good but not three different guys playing random notes simultaneously, I like it better when there's a melody of some sort but most smooth jazz has to struggle not to be sleep inducing. Alternative Folk is usually pretty listenable.

I enjoy anything that sounds a little unexpected and tend to favor strong moderately complex bass and drum/rhythm lines, lots of layers and texture to the sound and styles that cross over and become difficult to define. I especially like anything that has an unusual time signature. If that's combined with a strong bass hook or rhythm groove I'll listen over and over again.

Also, my picks are almost always album cuts but just because I like a song doesn't mean I like the album. That's the nature and purpose of music mixes; you can pick the best of the best and skip the rest. I never ever listen to top forty radio so sometimes I make what I think is a big discovery only to learn it's been playing on the radio for weeks. I don't mind, if it's got a cool hook I'll usually go for it.

Anyway, here's my picks for this week. I'll link each one to a source, either Amazon or the artist's website and make a few notes about each song. I highly recommend listening to samples of anything here that's unfamiliar. Check 'em out, you'll be glad you did.

1. Artist: Jim White

Song: A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados
Album: Wrong Eyed Jesus

Jim White is a little known folk artist from the Florida panhandle with a penchant for dark or just plain weird lyrics and amazing music. His folky arrangements are routinely underscored with layers of Pink Floydian style
effects creating a sound that is hard to categorize. It's a little like country music on acid. Jim White is one of my favorites and one of the few artists that I have dedicated whole mixes to. (meaning all the songs on the mix are by the same artist) This song is one of the best, the first of many I will recommend in weeks to come.

2. Artist: Carbon Leaf

Song: Paloma
Album: Indian Summer

Virginia based Carbon Leaf is best known as a support band (see opening act) for such headliners as Dave Matthews, Counting Crows and John Mayer. Indian Summer is their 2004 major label debut album. The song Paloma is my personal favorite on the album with a great groovy bass hook and super tight signature vocal harmonies. This one will get you doing the head bob in the car pretty quick.

3. Artist: Frank Zappa

Song: Tink Walks Amok
The Man From Utopia

What can you say about F
rank? A master of music and ridiculously funny and poignant lyrics. 1983's The Man From Utopia isn't one of his better known albums but a couple of true gems can be mined from it. Tink Walks Amok is a superb instrumental groove with an unusual time signature featuring Arthur 'Tink' Barrow ripping on multiple bass parts. Very, very cool.

4. Artist: Cake

Song: Arco Arena
Album: Comfort Eagle

Cake is a hard to classify California band that a photo client turned me onto a fews years back. I wasn't sure about them at first but they really grew on me. Sort of lounge rock with a single trumpet and spinning clicker thing thrown in. They can be kind of hit and miss but when they hit they do it really well. Arco Arena is a short instrumental piece that really shows off the bands musical talents. Comfort Eagle isn't my favorite Cake album but I'll be recommending many more Cake songs from other albums in the future. They also have the absolute coolest album art of any band I know. I want t-shirts of them all.

5. Artist: Ben Harper
Song: Touch From Your Lust
Album: Diamonds on the Inside

Ben Harper is an extraordinary guitar player with a completely unique sound. The thick, ropey flangey bluesy guitar leads in Touch from Your Lust just make me sit back and say, "whoa". This one's a little heavier than most that I would recommend; featuring not really screaming guitars but rather hoarsely shouting ones. Turn it up really loud.

1 comment:

Kati said...

Very cool!!! I had a friend in HS who made me some seriously kick-butt mixed tapes. I've made a couple myself, but I've never quite gotten the hang of making a tape that truly moves smoothly from one track to another, with little discord between songs. And while one of my sisters has the knack, the other sister truly sucks at it. Unfortunately I get too few cds from the one sister, and too many from the other.

Dh is currently investigating a little Ipod thing that's about the size of one's thumb, and holds 300 songs. It costs about 70 bucks. I told DH that he can have it for his birthday present this summer, but probably not sooner. (He'd buy it tomorrow, if I didn't remind him of bills & other more important purchases that must be made first.)